The Megatrends that Enabled the Trump Presidency and the Civil war of Western Politics
For some time now I have wanted to do my write-up on the ongoing surge of the far-right movement in the Western hemisphere. The Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump has, of course, beaten me to write about these things with foresight. However, I do believe that my analysis and world view still is original and has enough depth to add value in the jungle of post-Trump analysis. So please bear with me.
It is a Maslowian World
My way of seeing the change in voting behaviour and the disconnect between the elites and the common man largely evolves around the Maslow hierarchy of needs. So before I start applying the framework for my analysis, let me give you a short introduction to it. The Maslow hierarchy of needs is a psychological framework that deals with human motivation. The Hierarchy ranks our needs from the most to least important, and underpins the fact that you will only start to care about your lesser needs once your most fundamental needs have been fulfilled. For visualization the most fundamental needs are placed at the bottom of the hierarchy and then less important needs are added in layers above them, as shown in the pyramid below.
The Disconnect Begins
What has been going on in the Western world for the last 20 years is a complete disintegration between the elites and the average citizen on where they see themselves in this pyramid. For the elites, life has been beautiful. They find themselves on the very top of the Pyramid, having all of their needs fulfilled and are largely just working to fulfil their self-actualization needs. These are people that are writing apps in Silicon Valley, digging wells in Africa, writing opinion pieces in the New York Times or blogposts like this. We are a class of super-privileged people. And our lives are only getting better because most European and American companies now only want to hire creative workers, so we are also getting wage increases, unlike everybody else. Increasingly in the post Cold war period policymakers have been recruited from this part of society. They see their job largely as one of making trade-offs between good things that they are either way fine with. I want to do something for children, but I also want to something for the elderly, are type of moral choices they feel empowered to make. Very rarely do they embark upon the road of making moral choices and trade-offs between things that they do not want to do. When such choices are put on their table, they largely prefer to pretend they do not exist. However, these moral problems do exist, and increasingly voters are waking up to this reality.
Twenty Years in two Paragraphs
The common man on his side has been living through a completely different story. To see this, let us go back 20 years. In 1996 the Cold war had been over for a few years, and there was no credible threat to Western Hegemony or way of life. It was almost as good as it gets. I would have proclaimed it perfect, if it was not for the fact that England footballer Gareth Southgate missed a penalty shot in semi-final of the Euro cup, and we were denied the ultimate moment of football history as England, the home of football, lifts the cup while the stadium erupts into “football’s coming home”. Besides that, it was perfect. At this time in history I would estimate that most of the population of Europe and America were residing at the top of the Maslow pyramid within the self-esteem needs block. To feel prestige and a feeling of accomplishment were the most important factors motivating their everyday behavior and voting pattern. This is the block right under the self-actualization block, so there is not a large disconnect between the two. Since then a few game changing events, that have evolved into megatrends, have occurred. These events have ensured that many people in Western societies have dropped multiple levels in the Maslowian hierarchy and have caused a huge upset in what they view as important. I have narrowed these events down to four and will take you through them chronologically.
In 1998 the Arab multimillionaire and al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden, issues a fatwa declaring global Jihad against the West. Al-Qaeda quickly becomes the most successful terrorist network in history and the first terrorist organization potent enough to trigger global war. In 2001 China becomes the 143rd member of the World Trade Organization. Chinese labor causes a supply side shock in Western labor markets, that have resulted in zero interest rates and zero wage growth. In France 2005 an event labeled the French Intifada occurred as immigrant youths in the suburbs of Paris were able to hold the French police at bay for three consecutive weeks while they burned cars and wrecked public infrastructure. This was the first modern example of a Western government not being able to uphold law and order within its own cities in modern times. In 2007 Steve Jobs launches the iPhone. The perfect handheld Internet communicator, that brings the world into your pocket.
The Global Megatrends on your Lawn
The first three events are the movers of my story. The iPhone event was an amplifier that allowed for the first three to evolve more quickly and with a larger impact. So now, let us dig in on these megatrends.
Megatrend number 1: Terrorism
The al-Qaeda event is perhaps the most important event of the story. I believe most people remember very well exactly where they were on September 11th 2001. I was sixteen and was watching mass murder live on television in my living room. I had visited New York with my family earlier that year. Even though New York City is far away from the apple gardens of Nordstrand in Oslo where I grew up, it feels close. It drives fear through your heart. No single event in my life has impacted my political views more than this. While my political positions certainly have changed a lot of times during my life, the prime issue to resolve has been the same. How do we deal with this threat? This issue relegated me several levels in the Maslowian hierarchy, from self-actualization to safety needs. Once you fall off this cliff mainstream politics appears incredibly stupid, and with terror-bombs going off at an increasing frequency all around the Western world, more people fall off the same cliff. As I am writing this the Norwegian Government is facing a parliamentary crisis over whether or not gasoline prices should be 0.05 US dollar higher, in a country where GDP per capita is more than 100,000 USD per year. How is it possible to have a heated discussion over something this trivial, in a world where terrorist just killed a hundred people at the Bataclan? This is a mockery of politics. Issues like this pisses me off. I think it pisses most people off. It makes you want to take a sledgehammer to parliament. And the far-right has a large sledgehammer.
Megatrend number 2: Migration
The second issue is the migration event. This does of course not exist in a vacuum, but is interconnected with the first one. While I of course do not believe that most migrants have any terrorist affiliations, some actually do. To have a sub-community growing inside of your own community that has extremely hostile opinions about you and your society is scary. Even though it is still very small. Secondly it serves as a reminder. I think that most people would be able to forget about some of the threats radical Islamism presents if they did not have to watch television interviews with radical clerics praising terrorism and death penalty for homosexuals on television perfectly articulated in your mother tongue. They are here, and they are coming for you! So because of these few, but quite powerful lunatics, more and more people see pluralistic societies as a failure and wants to get away from them. This is a perfectly human thing to do. We are biologically and socially programmed to return to our tribe for safety when we feel threatened. It is easy to see in very dangerous places, like for example American prisons, where all the inmates spontaneously organize in ethnic gangs to protect themselves from the members of the other gangs. You can call this racism if you want to. It probably is as well, but racism is not the root cause. Racism is the result; the root cause is fear. And fear puts you into the bottom levels of the Maslowian pyramid.
Megatrend number 3: Labor Arbitrage
So now to trade and economics. The emergence of China as a global trade power has had an extremely negative impact on the prospects for low-skilled people in the western world to enjoy success in life. The reason for this is that in any economic value chain the surplus is captured by whatever is the constrained factor. Throughout most of human history low skilled labor has been a constrained factor. To give an easy example to show this fact, let us go to the profession of a barber. The barber profession has existed at least since the time of the Roman Empire. It is also a profession that has existed with almost zero innovation or productivity improvements for the last 2000 years. Yet a barber or hairdresser today would have experienced a tremendous wage increase in the same period. This happens because other members of society become more productive, and they have to pay the barber an ever increasing part of their income to ensure that the barber does not switch to another industry. So the barber has leverage, but just as long as there are a limits to the amount of people that wants to work as a barber. Enter one billion Chinese workers and your game is up. This is exactly what has happened to manufacturing workers in Europe and America. Even though these factories have become much more productive the last 20 years’ there has not been any wage increases because the workers are so easy to replace. This is hammering middle income westerners and ensures that many of them are no longer able to fulfill their esteem needs, something that is causing a lot of anger, resentment, and a feeling of being left behind.
Megatrend number 4: Super Accessible Internet
According to a recent study of smartphone users, the average user of a smartphone touches the screen 2,617 times a day. That is a lot of smartphone usage and most of it goes into digesting news and world events. This has made the average voter much more aware of the world around him. Whenever a news snowball starts running, it very quickly evolves into an avalanche inside of your jacket pocket. What strikes me when I talk to Americans that supported Trump is not that they are ignorant, as they usually are portrayed, but rather very knowledgeable about the issues that they care about. With live visuals broadcasted over the internet bad events feels closer and more real to you. Secondly, super accessible Internet and social media is creating echo-chambers where you are increasingly only digesting news that play to your own preferences. If you are worried about the future, you will read more news that worry you. If you are happy, you will read more about the stuff that makes you so. This is driving an even larger wedge between the upper and the lower levels of the Maslow pyramid, where many people who are scared and feel left behind gets their own dark feelings amplified and the people on top completely fails to comprehend their point of view.
If the Prince has to Choose Between Love and Fear
So let me sum it up for you. There is a tremendous gap in politics between the people that are living on the top and on the bottom on the Maslow pyramid. This gap has now become so large that when you run one candidate that has 40 years of political experience, and that has spent all of her life preparing to become the first female President of the United States versus a pussy-grabbing-my-daughter-has-a-nice-ass-saying-private-airplane-owning-rightwing-freakshow with absolutely no political experience, the latter one is winning because he is talking about the bottom of the pyramid while the former is mainly into the top. This is how badly the message of the liberal class of society resonates with the common man. So love does not trump hate as Hillary Clinton proclaimed during her campaign. Actually it never has, at least not when hate is driven by fear. Love is a feeling that you largely choose to feel, when you have the surplus do so. Fear is a constant forced upon you through the environment that you reside in. Fear is something that you cannot get rid of even if you want to. Love is who you want to be, but fear is what defines you. This is why Niccolo Machiavelli already 500 years ago proclaimed: “If a ruler has to choose between being loved and feared, it is better to have fear”. So if we want to defeat the far-right we have to get serious about fear as well.
Getting serious about fear however, is easier said than done. Part of what motivates me to spend 20 hours writing this analysis is what I perceive as the low quality and ability to self-reflect in 95 percent of all the post-trump content that has been generated so far. Almost all of it runs along the same pattern. It all says that now that Trump has been elected we have to do more of the things that we always wanted to anyway. We have to get more serious about the facts, some people say, like we were not wanting to be factual in the first place. We have to have to come together to safeguard liberal values, like we did not want do that in the first place either. We have to get more serious about unions, the far left says, like they did not always think this way. The problem with these analyses is of course that they fail to develop a path for doing something else than what we have already tried. We might as well conclude that the reason we are growing fat is that we do not eat enough at McDonalds. So now we are going to McDonalds, “One large McWrong menu” “Great hun, do ya wanna supersize that?” “Yes please!”. If we want to succeed, we absolutely have to break that pattern. We have to go outside of our comfort zone and have a much more serious debate about actions and consequences.
Was that so Clever?
One of the few TV-shows that I still enjoy watching is called the luxury trap and runs on Norwegian TV3. This show is about people that are completely unable to manage their own personal finances and assets. When the show goes through their past financial behavior it is usually discovered that the candidate has done something like paying of their student debt with their credit card. Then the program host asks the candidate the key line of the show, “was that so clever?”. The candidate then has to admit that this was perhaps not so clever and accepts help, but there is a catch. In order to get financial help and advice from the show you have to make the ultimate concession. If you are a motorcycle enthusiast you have to sell your Harley Davidson. If you are a beauty queen you have to sell your Gucci dresses. And so, if you are liberal globalist listening to Kumbaya-my-lord while driving at a 100 miles per hour towards the Great Wall of Trump, you absolutely have to put on the emergency breaks and throw that CD out of the window! When you look at the world outside and see that more and more European cities are now encircled by enclaves where the police do not dear to go. When you see that most of European and American terrorist attacks this year were conducted by people holding European and American passports. When you see that the working class of America has not had any real wage gains for the last 30 years. Ask yourself this simple question: Was that so clever? Probably not, and that is what far-right voters has come to grasp.
Leaving the Shire
In J.R.R. Tolkien’s masterpiece the, The Lord of the Rings, the plot begins in an idyllic countryside paradise called the Shire. Here Tolkien’s fantasy creature, the hobbit, can live in harmony unaffected from the horrors of this world. Hobbits in general prefer to keep it this way. However, just as in our world today, there are real dangers looming that are threatening this way of life. In Tolkien’s story this danger is symbolized with a ring, forged by the Lord of Darkness, that someone will have to take the burden to carry. Nobody wants to do so, because carrying the ring can corrupt your mind and overcome you with evil. However, somebody actually have to do it. In the world of Tolkien this burden falls upon a righteous character named Frodo. In the real world Frodo has so far been hard to find. So now it has fallen upon Gollum to carry it instead. It did not have to be like this. It does not have to stay like this either. It is never too late to do something, but mainstream political parties need to show that they are actually up for the task.